Friday Night Seitz

The irresistible appeal of the train movie

Slide show: In the wake of "Unstoppable," we look at 10 films that capture the magic and symbolism of rail travel

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    “God don’t even hear you,” “Days of Heaven” (1978)

    One of the most beautiful sequences in one of the most beautiful films ever made is set on a train. The film is about a young Chicago steelworker (Richard Gere) who accidentally kills his supervisor during an argument and flees town with his girlfriend (Brooke Adams) and his kid sister (Linda Manz), who narrates the film in fractured lyrical sentences that are like stream-of-consciousness dispatches from the mind of a woman who, like so many of the film’s characters, is as naive as she is hardbitten. Director Terrence Malick is a master at assembling music, dialogue, sound effects and images through editing so that the specifics of time and place that normally define movies are subsumed into a perpetual present, an endless moment that the viewer doesn’t so much watch as ride, the way a kite rides a breeze. The train sequence near the beginning of “Days of Heaven,” 103 seconds of bliss scored to banjo wizard Leo Kottke’s “The Train and the Gate,” is a great example. It describes a finite journey from one U.S. state to another, but it’s not about what’s happening or where it’s happening; it’s about the thoughts and feelings that tumble through the narrator’s head as she remembers it all.

    “I met this guy named Ding Dong,” she says, over images of immigrant laborers packed into boxcars chugging toward a promised land of backbreaking toil. “He told me the whole earth was going up in flames. Flames’ll come out of here and there. They’ll just rise up! The mountains are gonna go up in big flames. The water’s gonna rise in flames. There’s gonna be creatures runnin’ every which way, some of them burnt, their wings burnin’. People are gonna be screaming and hollerin’ for help. See, the people that have been good, they’re gonna go to heaven and escape all that fire. But if you been bad, God don’t even hear you. He don’t even hear you talking.”

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    Playing with fire, “The Darjeeling Limited” (2007)

    I can’t get enough of this movie; in addition to writing about it for Salon, I’ve done several video essays that mention it, including a supplement on Criterion’s Blu-ray DVD. Wes Anderson’s film about three estranged brothers trying to bond during a vacation in India is an odd, poignant, visually arresting comedy; it’s also locomotive porn on a level not seen since the 1985 action thriller “Runaway Train” (see later in this slide show). From the early image of middle brother Peter Whitman (Adrien Brody) racing to get on the titular vehicle to the closing shot of the train cutting through verdant countryside, the movie is a love letter to train travel. The Darjeeling Limited, the vehicle, is a engineering feat in itself — a massive, rolling practical set composed of intricately decorated passenger cars that were rebuilt to accommodate cameras, lights, actors and crew. There are no CGI shots, rear projections, miniatures or other special effects. The director’s obsessive dedication to physical realism anchors a whimsical story and gives it a voyeuristic intimacy. At times you may feel as though you’re an invisible passenger wandering the halls and sneaking into compartments to watch the tale unfold.

    This sensibility comes through strongly in a long tracking shot scored to the Rolling Stones’ “Play With Fire.” Anderson starts by panning between the brothers and their mother (Anjelica Huston) in a monastery, holding hands and staring into each other’s faces, then cuts to a lateral tracking shot that moves through a series of cutaway train compartments. Each contains a different character in a different locale, yet each compartment is roughly the same size and joined by similarly thin walls. This is the only scene in the movie that takes place in what could be described as figurative rather than physical space. It’s a dream image, a metaphor made real. At the end of the shot, Anderson settles on the businessman (Bill Murray) whom we saw during the opening sequence, trying and failing to catch the train that Peter Whitman successfully boarded; then the camera pans right to reveal a tiger, the movie’s resident grim reaper symbol, keeping watch over everyone. The image recalls a line from “Barry Lyndon”: “It was in the age of George III that the aforesaid personages lived and quarreled. Good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now.”

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    Train ride through the spirit world, “Spirited Away”(2001)

    “Spirited Away,” a masterwork by Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, has a train scene that lasts for just a small part of the film’s running time, but makes a deep impression. It happens about two-thirds of the way through the movie, when the heroine Chihiro, who has been working at a bathhouse for a witch named Yububa, takes a train ride across the spirit world to seek out the witch’s sister, Zeniba. The sequence probably would have made a strong impression anyway, thanks to Miyazaki’s sense of design, movement and atmospheric detail. The train is an old-fashioned electrical trolley of a sort that might have been seen early in the century, with benches placed along side walls and swinging overhead handles that give stability to passengers who have to ride standing up. It takes its time moving through the landscape — like the director, it’s in no hurry — and in an especially dreamlike touch, you can’t see the rails because they’re submerged under water by recent rains.

    The heroine’s traveling companions are enchanted creatures as complex as they are visually striking. There’s a fly that used to be Yububa’s pet raven until she angrily placed him under a curse, and Yububa’s son, a giant infant she transformed into a mouse. The most compelling character, however, is a wraith called No-Face, a creature previously seen terrorizing the bathhouse where Chihiro has been working as a servant. As is often the case in Miyazaki’s movies, the characters don’t fit within the reductive labels of “good” and “evil.” No-Face isn’t bad or good, just complicated. His stillness and gentleness as he rides alongside the heroine reveals a new dimension to his personality.

    The dominant color in this sequence is blue. The cloud-dotted, aquamarine sky is reflected in the flood water, and the train often seems to serve as a border between them, cutting horizontally across the frame like an equator. It’s a subtle analog for the relationship between the spirit world and the “real” world — which in Miyazaki’s films are more connected than any of us realize, and mirror images of each other.

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    Love on an empty stomach, “North by Northwest” (1959)

    Trains are seductive and filmmakers know it. That’s why so many flirtatious, romantic or flat-out sexual scenes take place on rails: Think of Jill Clayburgh (R.I.P.) seducing flustered hero Gene Wilder in “Silver Streak,” or Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy meeting at the beginning of “Before Sunrise” (1995), or Tom Cruise and Rebecca DeMornay indulging in a narratively gratuitous but visually spectacular tryst on a Chicago subway car in “Risky Business.”

    But none can hold a candle to the Twentieth Century Limited scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest.” Watch this scene between fugitive New York adman Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant) and his savior and soon-to-be love interest, Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), and tell me I’m wrong. It’s astonishing how much heat the movie generates from plainly composed images of a man and woman pressed against a door, kissing and touching and talking softly. “Are you planning to murder me?” she asks, smiling up at him. “Right here? Tonight?” “Shall I?” he replies. “Please do,” she says. This playful, elegant seduction scene actually has two scores. One is musical: a melody by Bernard Herrmann modeled, like so many of his romantic themes, on Richard Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde.” The other is environmental: the clackety-clack of the train wheels, punctuated by the occasional horn bleat that might as well be the sound of the lovers’ hormones coming to a teakettle boil.

    It’s so sexy that it’s almost funny. And at the very end of the film, Hitchcock returns his couple to the scene of their first romantic encounter and embraces the setting’s comedic potential, cutting from Roger pulling Eve to safety at the end of the Mount Rushmore action sequence to a shot of Roger in a train compartment, lifting his new bride, Eve, into an upper bunk. Cut to: the train entering a tunnel.

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    A free man, “Runaway Train” (1985)

    This film about a couple of convicts (Jon Voight and Eric Roberts) and a railway worker (Rebecca DeMornay) on a speeding train without brakes is one of the more underappreciated action movies of the ’80s — although it at least scored an Oscar nomination for Voight in one of his most obsessive and colorful roles. He plays former bank robber “Manny” Manheim, a hot-tempered visionary who planned and executed a bold escape from an Alaska prison and would rather die than go back. “Runaway Train” is a great train film and a great suspense thriller. But in its heart it’s a character piece and a meditation on freedom, set in a frigid wasteland that reduces human effort to comical irrelevance. (The film makes great compositional use of snow, diminishing the train and its passengers against an icy white canvas.)

    The script is adapted from an unproduced screenplay by Akira Kurosawa, and there are times when Manny’s clenched-jawed determination has an almost Kabuki-like intensity; it’s easy to imagine the film in widescreen black-and-white, with Toshiro Mifune playing Voight’s part. The movie embraces its fable-like aspects in its stunning final section, in which the prison warden, who has boarded train by helicopter, confronts Manny and tells him the jig is up. Manny refuses to accept this, and his answer (which comes in the form of a mad, heroic, redemptive act) pushes the film’s already symbolically charged setting into the realm of parable. Something about the film’s closing shot — an uncoupled freight engine being swallowed up by snowy mist — reminds me of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” the final section of which promises to take us “beyond the infinite.”

    “You’re as afraid to die as anybody else, and I’ll never let you free, you hear me?” the warden taunts him. “I’m free, Frank,” Manny replies. “I am free.”

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    “You are getting very sleepy,” “Europa” (1991)

    Watching films from the early phase of Danish director Lars von Trier, it’s hard to envision what he would one day become. Where his later films are shot on video and have a loose, improvisational-seeming style, his early movies were meticulously shot and edited and were as interesting (often more interesting) for their design than for anything that happened on-screen. His 1991 feature “Europa,” aka “Zentropa,” is Von Trier’s most stylistically complex and assured work, so intricately designed that it’s downright oppressive (probably on purpose), and very much a film about filmmaking and dreams. Ostensibly a quirky thriller set in a dreamscape full of historical signifiers, the movie tells of a young American (Jean-Marc Barr) who gets a job working as a conductor for the Zentropa railway network, and gets wrapped up in a muddled, at times incomprehensible conspiracy involving a femme fatale and Nazi-sympathizing terrorists.

    But the real show is the movie’s sleek, intoxicating look, which hearkens back to German expressionist silent films even as it pushes a then-fashionable MTV video aesthetic as far as it can possibly go. This is a postwar Europe of the imagination, made from elaborate superimpositions and rear projections, sets and miniatures. Some of the more sweeping exterior shots are clearly dioramas, with a scale-model passenger train puttering past landscapes that seem to have been built from model kits, and no attempt is made to hide the constructed nature of what you’re watching. It’s unreal, sometimes ostentatiously artificial, yet somehow powerfully convincing, as dreams often are.

    Be warned, though: This is a slow film that’s more about light, space and emotions than plot. Between the dark visuals, the droning score and the deep-voiced “hypnotist” narrator (who unwisely keeps repeating phrases like, “You are getting very sleepy … “), it’s not something you’ll want to start watching late at night, unless you augment the experience with a pot of strong espresso and a couple of bricks of dark chocolate.

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    Trolley ride into the city, “Sunrise: A Tale of Two Humans” (1927)

    F.W. Murnau’s silent classic “Sunrise: A Tale of Two Humans” contains a trolley ride that, while brief, is one of the most emotionally complex scenes in the film. The main characters are The Man (George O’Brien) and his wife (Janet Gaynor), an otherwise unnamed small-town couple living in a tiny home with their newborn baby. The Man is dissatisfied with his life; he has fallen in love with The Woman from the City (Margaret Livingston) and plans to drown his wife during a boat trip and run off to live with his mistress. But when the time comes, he can’t do the deed, and his wife, startled and frightened by the dark emotions unexpectedly erupting in her husband, flees from him as soon as the boat returns to shore — and he pursues her.

    She hops on a trolley bound for the city and he jumps on right after. It’s here that the sequence begins. The Man has made a catastrophic mistake, one that alters the very essence of his relationship with The Wife. How can he — they — recover? The incident on the boat is so upsetting that neither of them quite knows how to address it, so for most of this brief sequence, they just ride the trolley as it winds through mountainous coastal woods and gradually snakes its way into the city, where the film’s middle section (the couple’s impromptu vacation, which heals their marriage and reawakens their love) will take place.

    The trolley scene is beautiful on its own terms — check out those winding point-of-view shots that treat window edges as frames-within-the-frame. But what makes it profound is the sense that everything is up for grabs — that the characters are emotionally unmoored, floating, just like the train appears to be floating, lost in transition.

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    Rejected and dejected in “The General” (1927)

    Buster Keaton’s “The General” is regarded as the greatest train movie of all time, and one of the great action comedies — rightly so. Much of its running time is given over to some of the most elaborately choreographed chase imagery in silent cinema, with Civil War-era locomotives slicing through black-and-white landscapes whose high-contrast imagery deliberately evokes the photographs of Matthew Brady.

    But my favorite moment in the movie is a smaller, quieter one. It occurs when the hero, a Confederate railway engineer named Johnnie (Keaton), tries to enlist in the army and is rejected, first because he’s too short, then on grounds that he’s of more use to the South as an engineer than as a soldier. Johnnie had hoped to don a uniform to impress his great love, Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack). His dream will never come to pass now. When Annabelle Lee stops by to ask him about his enlistment, they have one of those movie conversations where a great misunderstanding could have been averted if one of the characters had just spoken up instead of being coy. (She thinks Johnnie was rejected as physically unsuitable, and has no idea it was because of his professional ability.) Annabelle walks away from Johnnie, who’s sitting on a crossbar of the engine. Unbeknownst to Johnnie, the engineer’s assistant starts the train, which rolls forward with Johnny sitting on the crossbar. His up-and-down motion visually suggests the waves of shame and sadness washing over him. Keaton captures the moment in a single unbroken shot, medium-distance, panning to follow the train into a roundhouse, where Johnnie is swallowed up by darkness.

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    The engine and the Spitfire, “The Train” (1964)

    All modern action films come from “The Train” (1964). And after you’ve luxuriated in its deep-focus, Dutch-tilted compositions, you realize how much the modern classics of crash-and-burn Hollywood mayhem (including “Die Hard,” “Speed” and “Under Siege”) owe to it. Set in occupied France on the eve of Allied liberation, John Frankenheimer’s thriller tells of a French resistance fighter (Burt Lancaster) trying to stop a trainload of French paintings stolen by an art-loving Col. Franz von Waldheim (Paul Scofield) from leaving the country. It’s a cat-and-mouse action epic filled with awesomely detailed black-and-white images of locomotives rumbling from Point A to Point B, blowing up and smashing into each other. In its final half-hour — which finds Lancaster’s character, Labiche, single-handedly trying to derail the train while limping along on a bullet-wounded leg — it takes on the overtones of an existential fable. An effete killer with a connoisseur’s mentality is vexed by a brawny prole who doesn’t know Renoir from pinot noir but appreciates life and is handy with a submachine gun. It’s like Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner by way of Albert Camus.

    One of my very favorite things about “The Train” is its tactile imagery, which adds a documentary-like intensity to the tale even when its hero is performing mythic feats of strength. Frankenheimer took over production after Lancaster decided the film’s original director, Arthur Penn, wasn’t right for the job. Frankenheimer, who started his filmmaking career as a documentary cameraman in the U.S. Air Force, brought his commitment to realism to bear on every scene, shooting the former acrobat Lancaster in long takes so that you could see that he was performing his own stunts, and increasing the film’s sense of scale however he could. The most famous example is the sequence showing Labiche and his fellow resistance fighters marking the roof of Von Waldheim’s art train with white paint to signal Allied planes not to bomb it during a raid on the Paris rail yards. The air raid sequence wasn’t in the original script. It was added after Frankenheimer learned that the French government planned to dismantle the rail yards after shooting, and asked if he could blow it up with dynamite instead.

    The film is filled with immense panoramas of men dying and vehicles toppling, burning and being torn apart. But my favorite sequence is comparatively intimate: an early set piece in which a engine driven by Labiche gets strafed by a Spitfire. There’s no score, just natural sound: the choked sputter of machine guns, the whine of aircraft engines and the chugga-chugga-chugga-chugga of the train barreling toward a tunnel. When the engine enters the tunnel, Labiche slams on the brakes, stopping a meter away from the the exit. Then one of his men, Pesquet (Charles Millot), bears down on the steam valve, unleashing a noise that sounds as if the engine itself is shrieking in frustration. These men are too stoic to scream, so the train screams for them.

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    The self-consuming train, “Go West” (1940)

    In the late 1940s, long after their creative peak in 1933′s “Duck Soup,” the great film critic James Agee wrote of the Marx Brothers, “The worst they might ever make would be better worth seeing than most other things I can think of.” That’s backhanded praise, to be sure. And “Go West” — in which the boys wander into a boring, cardboard version of the Wild West and stumble around and get bullied like a bunch of greenhorn schmucks, when by all rights they should have taken charge and plunged the screen into lunacy because they are, after all, the friggin’ Marx Brothers! — was one of many late-period films that tested fans’ patience.

    But “Go West” is worth seeing for its mind-boggling final sequence, the greatest comic locomotive chase since Buster Keaton’s “The General.” Like the truck sequence in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and the high-speed death caravan that ends “The Road Warrior” (only lighter and goofier, and with a lot more rear projection), it’s a little movie in itself — intricately structured, masterfully paced and totally deranged. You don’t need to know why the Marx brothers are on the train. Suffice to say they have to catch up with a couple of bad guys who have escaped on a buckboard wagon — and that at a certain point, they run out of wood to fuel the engine.

    If it’s combustible and not nailed down, the boys feed it into the furnace. They dump chickens out of coops and burn the coops. Then they move on to passengers’ bags. And parcels. And cases of popcorn. (“Pop goes the diesel!” Groucho exclaims.) The train jumps the track, but instead of stopping it starts moving in circles like a miniature train at a zoo. Then the train smashes into a house atop which a man is fixing his roof. The locomotive disappears inside the house and pushes it along. The homeowner continues hammering away, oblivious, whereupon Groucho pokes his head out of a window, looks up at him and yells, “Hey, come on down! There’s a lovely fire in the living room!” The sequence is as stupid as it is thrilling, allowing for surreal digressions such as the bit where Groucho and Chico egg Harpo into leaning off the side of the train and trying to snatch the brass ring out of a bull’s nostrils. Harpo falls off the train right in front of the bull and does a massive double take; for no discernible reason — as if a Marx Brothers movie needs one — the score plays, “Where Has My Little Dog Gone?”

    When every free-standing object has been incinerated, Harpo starts chopping up the passenger cars to make kindling, keeping the train going by feeding it pieces of itself. The climactic long shots of the picked-apart train chugging merrily along, ant-like passengers scrambling through the skeletal remains in search of more wood to burn, are among the most sublimely demented images in American film.